Improving doubles key for Illinois men’s tennis

By Christopher Kennedy

Despite completing a thrilling comeback win over then-No. 6 North Carolina Saturday night, Illinois men’s tennis head coach Brad Dancer said that the team still has a lot of work to do.

In its three dual meets against top-15 teams, No. 5 Illinois has dropped the doubles point every time and compiled a 1-7 record in completed doubles play. Not only that, but the Illini as a team have dug themselves into a 3-1 hole in those three matches. Dancer said that isn’t a framework for success in the future.

“Our doubles has been nothing short of pathetic. We have to get so much better in doubles, it’s laughable,” Dancer said. “That’s not a winning recipe to keep getting down … and have to rescue our way out of it. We need to be able to step out and win matches with conviction.”

Dancer said that the team is emphasizing doubles play in practice this week. He also said that the team needs to start faster in singles. Illinois is 7-11 in the first set of singles against top-15 opponents. The Illini will look to improve this weekend as they take on the No. 27 Kentucky Wildcats at home Friday night and then hit the road for their first Big Ten match of the season at No. 51 Purdue on Saturday. Freshman No. 44 Aleks Vukic said that there’s only one way the Illini can continue to improve.

“Practice. Even against North Carolina (on Saturday), we won, we scraped through yet again,” Vukic said. “We’re working on doubles throughout the week. Everyone individually needs something. We keep trying to get better … if we get the doubles point, I don’t see us losing to too many teams. ”

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Last year, the Wildcats finished the season at No. 12, one spot behind Illinois in the final ITA team rankings. Right now, they’re in the middle of a rough patch, heading into Champaign on a four-match losing streak. Those losses have come to quality teams: No. 22 Penn State, No. 16 Notre Dame, No. 6 Duke and most recently, No. 8 Ohio State, the Illini’s Big Ten nemesis. These losses kept Kentucky from qualifying for the ITA Indoor Championships, but the Wildcats are still a strong team. Top doubles pair Kevin Lai and Beck Pennington will challenge the Illini as they try to improve in doubles. Lai and Pennington are 4-2 on the season and beat a top-10 pair from Notre Dame. They’ll most likely face another top-ranked pair on Friday night in No. 3 Ross Guignon and Tim Kopinski, who have struggled early with an 0-3 record.

Like Kentucky, Purdue is in a slide, losing its last three matches to teams ranked in the top-45. The dual meet is one of the earliest conference openers in the Big Ten this season. Last year, Purdue ended a 12-year NCAA tournament drought and finished fourth in the conference. However, the Illini have had their way with the Boilermakers, holding a 96-10-1 all-time record in the series. Illinois has never lost to Purdue under Dancer.

Though it’s a tough schedule for the Illini leading into ITA National Indoors next week, Vukic said that these early matches are extremely important for the team.

“Especially with four new freshmen on the squad, to figure out our doubles lineups, to figure out where everyone’s at,” Vukic said. “To get some confidence and match play is essential.”

Christopher can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @ChrisKennedy_4.